Is It A Fairy Tale?
“Could I get you a basket or cart?” I asked the man I was helping in the Produce section at Willy West. He had items in both hands and his grip on these looked precarious. He certainly couldn’t conveniently add to the load. “No,” he said, “I’m done. I’m Euro-shopping these days. I shop each day for the main meal I’m preparing. I buy what looks fresh, or make a recipe that strikes my fancy that day, buying the ingredients fresh.” We talked about what he had gathered for dinner that night, and off he went.
Later, I mentioned the conversation to my daughter, who has lived and traveled in Europe. Over there, she said, especially on the continent outside the dense urban centers, it’s really a social thing; people meet friends while they shop, and they’re on a first-name basis with the merchants and food producers they see many times a week. I think about the parents and children I see meeting up at the Co-op, and I suspect the trip to the store is also a playgroup outing. Some groceries are purchased; everybody gets a snack; and the parents have coffee and chat in our Commons while the children play nearby. I also reflect on the market scene in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, the one where Belle takes to the bustling village streets with her basket and cheery smile, collecting victuals and a book, along with greetings and gossip. Wait, that’s an 18th century fairy tale, right? Yes, but many American cities have commerce in their neighborhoods that resembles the fairy tale stereotype.
For example, within one short block of my daughter’s flat in a working class neighborhood in San Francisco are a butcher, and three small non-chain grocery stores all selling produce on the sidewalk and general and ethnic specialties on the inside. There are also an American and Hispanic bakery, and an Asian coffee shop. Hundreds shop everyday in these little stores. Some walk or arrive on the bus; they put their purchases in shopping bags, backpacks and wheeled market carts for the return home. The shopkeepers enthusiastically greet their regulars. Very Beauty and the Beast, albeit with cars and concrete.
I remain intrigued by the idea, and wonder if Euro-style shopping is an identifiable new trend here, like Slow Food, or the growth of community-supported agriculture. I am also struck by how the notion of frequent trips to the grocery store is at odds with what the home economists, including my mother, have preached for decades: make a menu and a weekly shopping list, shop once, and whatever you do, don’t make extra trips to the store: you’ll spend more if you do and the household budget will go into a tailspin! And can we shake off our “American Way” of warehouse shopping, where the bulk of a single trip won’t fit into a European car, let alone a European lifestyle?
The editor of the Reader was also curious about European-style shopping, so she said; let’s do an article on this!
What is European-Style shopping?
My research reveals that yes, Americans have a perception of what they call Euro-style shopping, and it is closer to the fairy tale model than reality. First of all, Europe is more diverse culturally, economically, and physically than Americans may recognize or appreciate. The American culture and economy are more uniform than the continent of Europe, and differences between European countries are greater than regional differences in the U.S. Generalizing about Europe is fraught with difficulty.
Researchers tell us that people in wealthier European nations shop in large grocery stores and “hypermarkets,” stores that sell non-food goods and groceries, in about the same proportion as Americans, and the trend is to shop in fewer retail grocery stores. However, a larger percentage of Southern, Mediterranean, and Eastern Europeans still shop at multiple small food businesses, as do urban residents. In the cities they have access to a denser network of specialty food stores, and open and farmers’ markets, like American city centers. Some countries, notably Italy, hold food traditions and loyalty to local shops in higher regard than others. In these countries the food dollar is divided among many retailers. Other countries, for example Sweden and the U.K., are more like the U.S., where a few retailers pull in the majority of the food dollar. But, the average European urban supermarket is smaller than American supermarkets.
Farmers’ markets (and other direct-to-producer marketing techniques) in Europe and the U.S. have experienced a marked increase in popularity over the past two decades. Studies note that Europeans shop farmers’ markets primarily for lower cost goods, whereas in America consumers list “supporting local farmers and producers,” not saving money, as the primary reason for their market shopping habits. One researcher generalized this by saying that in Europe the farmers’ market shopper is there for economic benefits and convenience, while the American shopper values the market for community reasons. On both sides of the Atlantic, the farmers’ market is embraced as an important source of fresh, high-quality farm products and is a regular shopping venue for many.
Data gathered by the Nielson Company in a 2011 global survey do show a marked difference between American and European shopping habits and, presumably, the number of visits made to the grocery store. When asked, “When shopping at a grocery store, what is the primary reason for the trip?” 60% of respondents in North America said “to stock up on groceries,” compared to 37% of Europeans. Only 25% of North Americans said they “went to buy a few essential items” or made “a quick trip to replenish items,” compared to 46% of Europeans. 4% of North Americans shopped to purchase food “for a meal today,” compared to 5% of the Europeans. (Respondents in the Asia Pacific region were the leaders in shopping for a daily meal; 9% gave that as the primary reason for store visits.) So, while many Europeans shop in multi-department supermarkets just like we do, they make more trips and purchase fewer items per trip. This is consistent with our image of the European picking up a loaf of bread, some fresh perishables for dinner, and a bottle of wine on the way home from the commuter train.
Americans in Europe, and Europeans in America, are good sources for observations about shopping in the two places; these can also help shape our understanding of Euro-style. One European wrote a helpful guide for fellow Europeans on many aspects of American culture, including American shopping. I apologize for borrowing such a long passage from this source, but the description, and his editorial comments, are priceless: “European grocery stores and supermarkets cater to ingredients for good home cooking while U.S. supermarkets stock up on microwave TV dinners (not unlike airline food), “snack food” like giant potato chip bags, and long rows of refrigerators for frozen food. European stores tend to be small, and there are many different ones nearby. U.S. supermarkets are like huge hangars that you could park two 747 aircraft side-by-side and still have room for a soccer field (French readers will know what I mean). They have names like Safeway, Lucky, or Vons, and are all pretty much identical. You walk into one of them, watch the rows of aisles receding into the distance, and know that there are approximately six edible food items you can buy there.” (bitrot.de.workintheusa/html)
From this we may painfully conclude that European stores are smaller and stocked with far less jumbo-sized processed food, and that Europeans have a desire for a different quality of food items altogether! Sounds like our American emporiums of empty calories clash with the European fresh cuisine mentality.
I believe Americans generally see themselves on top of the efficiency game, but “bitrot.de” characterizes our stores as “miracles of inefficiency,” because the cashiers unpack, scan and bag our stuff, which we have collected in carts that: “would hold a horse and many people fill them up completely because it’s a long drive and they come only once a week. Then they labor their way through the procedure to pay… If you are used to the deadly efficiency of an ALDI cashier who has likely added up all your groceries in her head while her fingers blur over the keys for the guy in front of you, US “customer service” can be infuriating.” (Note: ALDI is a major grocery chain in Europe.)
Ouch! Europeans, it seems, prefer their shopping trips to be light and fast, not expeditions to be endured weekly.
Guides for Americans living in or visiting Europe identify several differences between European grocery stores and ours: reduced hours, mid-day and Sunday closures in some places, fewer brands and variety of packaged products like cereals, but a wider selection of cheese, meats, and breads, no soft drink aisles, self-service weighing and bagging of fruits and veggies before going to the checkout stand, and always self-bagging.
One writer warns that: “Checkout in a German grocery store is much like that in the US, with laser scanners, etc. But you may feel rushed as you try to pay and bag all your groceries yourself! (That is not the cashier’s job and baggers are extremely rare.) The next customer in your checkout lane will soon be shoving his or her way into your space. And don’t forget to bring your own shopping bag – or you’ll have to pay for one.” (german-way.com)
In contrast, shopping in small villages and urban specialty stores is also on the European agenda, and they too have their unique customs. These include “relaxed” (slow) individual service, reduced hours, and midday closures. Delis, bakeries and butchers traditionally have counter service only—you wait your turn to make your selections. And there are stores where you cannot touch the fresh produce, but tell an attendant what you want and they pick and bag it. It is easy to imagine how this practice reduces food waste and creates employment. And you wouldn’t buy a week’s worth of food in this fashion. (slowtravel.com, blog.gaiam.com)
Convenience, Cost and Community
Convenience, cost and community are attributes we can ascribe to Euro-style shopping, even though the western perception of it as “a shopper leisurely moving from one specialty shop to another to assemble the day’s meals” may not be entirely accurate.
Convenience: Shopping for fewer items at a time changes a laborious schlep to a more manageable task. Smaller loads can be handled on foot, transit, and bicycles (Bicycle Benefits), encouraging a leave-the-car-behind lifestyle. No hunting for a parking space. Instead of a half day spent shopping and unloading goods, 30 minutes or less to grab essentials and go sounds pretty inviting. Smaller stores like the Willy Street Co-op’s facilitate frequent shopping because one doesn’t have to walk the distance of a football field and back to get to the groceries. And our stores are conveniently located in the middle of Madison and Middleton, on transit lines and within residential neighborhoods. Compact stores are characteristic of compact urban places in Europe and America and we can consciously choose to use them, Euro-style. Paradoxically, Americans’ desire for convenient shopping is a reason for the appearance of more food items in drugstores, gas stations, and other typically non-food retailers, and the expansion/development of grocery stores within big box stores (supercenters).
Cost: The most oft-recommended gold standard for budget grocery shopping is check the sales, clip coupons, then make a list and stick to it; resist impulse buying by staying out of the stores between weekly trips. Nothing wrong with these ideas, but proponents of Euro-style shopping say you can save money when you shop daily for the freshest food and inevitable in-store mark-downs and unadvertised specials. Taking advantage of these savings means tossing the menu plan and buying what looks good and/or is cheap when you get to the market. In most stores fresh meat and other dated foods are drastically discounted on or near their expiration dates. At the Co-op we rotate and cull fruit and veggies every day, and the resulting not-so-hot product is seriously discounted. Banana bread and mushroom soup prepared with bargains scored from the discount bins may be just what your family will love tonight. These specials are first come, first served, and you can’t wait a week to prepare them. Menu flexibility pays!
If you have a fresh food mentality, you’ll want to grab those morels or ramps, or buy a case of squash, the day they hit our shelves. Buying the freshest food at a store or farmer’s market extends the life of the product in your home, and it tastes good. Food quality is easier to evaluate the closer you are to the producer and/or seller. Spoiled or excess uneaten food is wasted money.
As noted already, smaller shopping trips can be accomplished on foot or via other gas-saving transportation. If you’re not constantly stocking up on large quantities of food you can save money using a smaller refrigerator and doing without that energy-guzzling freezer in the basement. There can be intangible benefits to Euro-style shopping as well; small stores and farmer’s markets are generally more welcoming and pleasant to be in than large stores, and personal relationships form more easily with farmers and staff you see frequently. It’s hard to put a price on the satisfaction of shopping where somebody knows your name. Food purveyors you know will want you to feel comfortable asking for information about the food you’re buying. Shopping Euro-style can be just plain fun, and who doesn’t feel jazzed finding a special bargain or the first stalk of new asparagus?
Community: Our fairy tale view of Euro-shopping puts patrons and local shops together, in villages and city centers. There’s little doubt that local commerce builds and maintains neighborhoods and communities. The direct and spill-over economic benefits of spending your money at locally owned businesses have been studied repeatedly all over the country; a comprehensive list of studies can be found on the website of The Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ilsr.org). Stores that have been in families for generations or new businesses locally owned are proudly held up and cherished in most places. Small, unique shops and farmers’ markets give character to a place and make it more attractive to tourists and residents. Vecchio found that many visitors to the Washington, DC, Dupont Circle farmers’ market viewed it as an attraction, a fun place to experience, not just a shopping venue. The Dane County Farmers’ Market is touted as a visitor attraction all over the Midwest, as are the Williamson Street, Monroe Street, and State Street shopping corridors—places that are filled with small businesses. In Madison we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to connecting with the freshest products from our local farmers, dairies and cooks, and I know small towns all around us have markets and businesses in need of your support. You may not have one at your doorstep, but you can choose to shop at them. Small businesses cannot survive without patronage, as documented below.
Retail grocery consolidation, the process of small businesses being acquired or put out of business by a few dominant retailers, has and will continue to be an unfortunate trend in Europe and America. The result? Communities lose employment, identity, convenience, tradition, and people. A report issued in 2008 by the Iowa State University Extension titled “Small Town Groceries in Iowa: What Does The Future Hold?” contained some truly alarming statistics: The number of grocery stores in Iowa decreased nearly 53% from 1995 to 2005, with small communities hardest hit by closures. The total number of supercenters and warehouse shopping clubs increased 175% between 2000 and 2005. The authors identified a vicious circle at play: as small businesses close in towns, “other retail businesses consolidate in area trade centers, people get in the habit of traveling to shop for general items, and then (shopping for) groceries follow suit.”
Call it what you will, we can choose to shop local, shop light, eat fresh, and live the fairy tale, wherever we are!